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An Injury Epidemic Alters the Landscape of the League
Three days after watching his starting and backup quarterbacks get sent to the sideline hurt in the same game, Chiefs president Carl Peterson made the news official. Like any franchise that places players on injured reserve and ends their seasons, Kansas City had to write an e-mail to the league offices in New York City providing names (Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard), the players' injuries (torn knee ligaments for Croyle, torn thumb ligaments for Huard) and the date they were hurt (Oct. 19, against the Titans). And with a click of the send button, Peterson dispatched the electronic obituary for the Chiefs' 2008 prospects.
"It's been the kind of year I hope I never endure again," says Peterson, whose 1--7 team is now in the hands of second-year quarterback Tyler Thigpen, a seventh-round pick from Coastal Carolina. "I have never been involved in losing this many quarterbacks this quickly."
Injuries began to take their toll just minutes into the season. With 7:27 left in the first quarter (against the Chiefs) on Sept. 7, Tom Brady took a hit to the knee and crumpled to the ground in New England with a torn left ACL and MCL. The league's biggest name was lost for the rest of '08, and the balance of power, once skewed heavily to the AFC, shifted toward the NFC.
While injuries fluctuate from year to year, it's the sheer number of sidelined A-listers that stands out in the first half of this one. There are All-Pros missing all or most of the season: Brady, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora (torn meniscus in preseason), Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman (on IR after Week 1 with torn knee ligaments), Pats safety Rodney Harrison (lost for the season with torn right quad in Week 7). Other big names have missed significant time: Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer (right elbow, five games and counting), Colts safety Bob Sanders (high ankle sprain, five games), Steelers running back Willie Parker (sprained knee, four games), Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (pinkie, expected to miss three games), Eagles running back Brian Westbrook (ankle and ribs, two games) Saints running back Reggie Bush (torn meniscus, at least two games), Ravens running back Willis McGahee (knee and ankle, two games) and Colts running back Joseph Addai (hamstring, two games). Even marquee attractions playing through injury—Peyton Manning and his staph infection, LaDainian Tomlinson and his turf toe—have struggled.
"You have injuries all the time, but it gets a lot of attention when stars like Brady or Bush get hurt," says fullback Tony Richardson of the Jets, one of the AFC East teams whose postseason prospects have been boosted by Brady's absence. "You scheme and you draft around the people you have. You bring in a Randy Moss because you have a Tom Brady. You might draft [differently on one side of the defense] because you have a Shawne Merriman on the other side. Unfortunately, injuries are part of our game, and you have to adjust."
Before the salary cap, a team could afford having Steve Young around to back up Joe Montana. Now a Super Bowl contender is one hit away from starting a fortysomething like Brad Johnson in Dallas or an unknown quantity like Matt Cassel in New England. Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum has a term for leaving enough salary-cap space to address needs that arise because of injuries: fudge money. Tannenbaum learned such contingency planning during Bill Parcells's stretch as Jets coach and executive from 1997 to 2000. A decade later, it's as relevant as ever. Still, says New York coach Eric Mangini, "It's hard when you lose a guy who counts significantly against the cap. You obviously don't get that cash back."
Nor can you plan for every injury. "You try to build a strong roster that has some depth because you're going to lose players," Texans coach Gary Kubiak says. "But to sit there and say you're going to prepare to lose a Tom Brady, I don't know how you do that. Because they don't make [a lot of] those guys."
As the league considers a significant change in the schedule—cutting the preseason to two or three games from four and extending the regular season to 17 or 18 games from 16—questions about injuries will only become more pronounced. An 18-game regular season would mean six to seven more hours of bruising punishment, exposing stars and journeymen alike. Browns tight end Darnell Dinkins says that whether the schedule has 20 games with 16 in the regular season or 20 with 18 in the regular season, the perils of the NFL will remain. "When you've got two objects trying to occupy the same space," Dinkins says, "something bad's going to happen."
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